By Lolly Susi
I had belonged to the cancer support group for three years, and Debbie had never been a regular attendee. In the advanced stages of ovarian cancer, she had too many places to go, people to meet and experiences to undergo.
But we always looked forward to her return, and after each adventure, Debbie would report back to the group.
"Ayers Rock is as amazing as I had hoped it would be," she effused after her trip to Australia. "It was my dream to see it before I died." And she brought out her photos and her stories and her smile. Debbie had a smile as wide as any room she entered. It is still my strongest memory of her.
I don't think I ever knew what Debbie really did for a living, but someone once suggested she might have been a model. Even in her illness, she was beautiful. Or maybe that was her smile. Anyway, it didn't really matter.
We never spent a lot of time at our meetings talking about the past. The present was too all-consuming for each of us.
Debbie was by no means the only member of our group who was facing her own death. Some traveled, like Debbie, braving exotic locations in spite of physical weaknesses or colostomy bags or post-treatment fatigue. Some stayed at home and made the most of remaining time with family and friends. Some were resigned, some philosophical, some fearful as they came to terms with their mortality. Death is a personal thing. But Debbie's way was my favorite: facing it full-on, with verve and spunk and gusto and joy. On the night she announced she was leaving the city and moving to a hospice that would let her be nearer her family, I knew we would never see her again, and it left an empty place in my heart.
On a cold and dreary winter evening, one of our members reported her phone call to Debbie's hospice. Surrounded by her family, Debbie was close to death. Her kidneys had failed, but in the final hours of her life, she still managed to take a brief phone call. She wished us all well. That had been several days before, so we knew she was gone. During the meeting, we lit a candle and had a moment's silence in memory of our friend.
Two weeks later, Debbie appeared in the doorway of our meeting room. Thinner, weaker, walking with a crutch, she was assisted to a chair by her sister. "Hi," she beamed. "Bet you didn't expect me tonight!" We stared at her, stunned.
Debbie laughed. "Who (besides doctors) says doctors know it all, anyway?" she gushed. "There I was, at death's door and beyond, and suddenly, for some reason, my kidneys kicked into gear. Go figure." And she laughed again.
Her laughter waned. "I can't stay long. I have to get back. It's just, I know some of you are facing what I face, and I had to come tell you, it's all right. I was there, you see. In fact, I feel cheated I had to come back. And it's beautiful there, wherever it is. Then, all of a sudden, here I am again." She shrugged. "I had to come and tell you all: Don't be afraid. You're going to be okay."
I don't remember what happened after that. We all said good-bye, like we would see her next week. We knew we wouldn't.
At our next meeting, we lit a candle for Debbie once again. During our moment of silence, I thought of her smile, and her warmth and joy. Debbie had given us her last report on her biggest journey.